Can The Nigerian Project Be Salvaged? Growth, Democracy and Security

By: Richard Joseph

The following introductory remarks come from the second talk in a three-part series by Prof. Richard Joseph, and were delivered at Brown University on March 13, 2012. The lecture was co-sponsored by The Department of Africana Studies and the Watson Institute of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The PowerPoint can be downloaded here, and video of the lecture can be viewed here.

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. Special thanks to Professor Corey Walker and his colleagues for their sterling planning efforts. I congratulate President Ruth Simmons on her many achievements as President of this illustrious university. As many speakers attested during the third Chinua Achebe Colloquium on Africa last December, Brown University deserves high praise for having brought Professor Achebe to join your faculty and for establishing the Achebe Colloquium. I am honored to have been invited to speak at each of its first three meetings.

In a talk in my department at Northwestern University on February 14, 2012, I said that it would be the first in a series of three I would give, and that the next two would take place at Brown University and Stanford University. I also mentioned that I would not be able to discuss adequately the deepening crisis that now involves terrorist violence in northern Nigeria. I showed one PowerPoint slide with a list of the difficult issues to be confronted which I’ll show again today. However, I am not able to deal satisfactorily with this urgent but complex topic and will now explore arranging a special event devoted to it.

My lecture today takes up three challenges that are global in nature. First, how to promote sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction? Second, how to strengthen and deepen democracy? And, third, how to advance security in two senses: security from physical harm and the security of meeting basic human needs and promoting fair access to a nation’s prosperity. As you will observe, these are not necessarily Nigerian or African concerns and priorities. There are scholars and policy analysts who focus on one or other of these objectives, or subsets of them. I have had the opportunity to engage with all of them at different stages of my career. Much of my forthcoming writing, teaching, research, collaborative projects, and policy advocacy will therefore involve these three themes.

As a result of the Arab Awakening, which has seen the greatest advances in North Africa, the sub-division of the continent into north and sub-Saharan Africa, while never fully reflecting reality, is now even less justifiable. At the heart of the Greater African Project has always been the Nigerian Project. With an estimated 155 -160 million people, Nigeria is one and two-thirds the size of the next most populous African country, Ethiopia, and almost twice the population of Egypt. It is also about three times the population of either the Congo or South Africa. Nigeria, with its abundant human and natural resources, that include huge reserves of low-sulfur petroleum which is relatively easy to refine, and similar untapped quantities of natural gas, could with suitable governance and management become one of the leading economies in the world.

But that has long been known. Two years ago, the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria and Ralph Bunche Fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations, John Campbell, published a book entitled: Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink. His study was strongly criticized by senior Nigerian government officials. However one may feel about aspects of Campbell’s analysis, most observers will agree that Nigeria’s days of relying on brinkmanship and “muddling through” are over. While preparing this lecture, I was reminded of the book, South Africa: Time Running Out, a 1981 report of the Study Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Southern Africa, chaired by Franklin Thomas who later served as President of the Ford Foundation. That work contributed to energizing and informing the anti-apartheid struggle.

A similar book about Nigeria today could be entitled: “Time Has Run Out”. We are in injury time, the opposition is pulling ahead, and the referee is looking at his/her watch preparing to blow the whistle. In Nigeria, we have to freeze time and find a way to get many key actors to step back to the brink and engage constructively with one another. I have seen it happen before, for example, in 1978 when sessions of the Constitutional Assembly were boycotted by delegates pushing for a stronger commitment to Sharia in the court system. The Supreme Military Council of the day, led by General Olusegun Obasanjo, called a time-out and summoned the warring politicians to resume their deliberations. And we saw this process unfold again just two years ago during the prolonged medical stay in Saudi Arabia of former Nigerian President, Umaru Yar’Adua. His failure to transfer power in a timely and dignified manner to his then vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, brought Nigeria perilously close to political collapse.

The stakes are high today because of the global crisis in economic management, the fierce challenges regarding the democratic nature of even mature democracies, the insecurities caused by endless, and especially sectarian, warfare in many lands, and the loss of livelihood, or even the hope of one, for hundreds of millions of young people worldwide. By working to pull out of the quagmire, or the labyrinth, whichever metaphor you prefer, Nigerian leaders – and I here I am thinking of leaders in government, the business sector, universities, civil and communal associations, the media, faith groups, and the arts – can salvage Nigeria’s own national project, and also contribute to advancing those of other countries.

My February 14 talk, available on YouTube, was titled, “The Fight of Our Time: State, Governance and Development in Nigeria”. I devoted much attention there to the issue of political corruption. The main title of that talk was taken from President Barack Obama’s lecture at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, as a U.S. Senator, in August 2006. You may have heard of the guilty plea on February 27, 2012 by one of the chieftains of mega-corruption in Nigeria, former Delta State Governor James Ibori, before his trial started in London two weeks ago. Revelations of the vast amount of state assets stolen by Ibori should alert us to the mountain of public wealth pilfered, and then squandered, by Nigerian politicians, and how systematically they have undermined the National Project of growth, democracy and security.

The preparation of today’s lecture inspired me to reach further back than I have done in many years to the wellsprings of my own career as a scholar-practitioner. I will show briefly how I became involved with Nigeria, and how quickly I was inducted into the community of persons engaged with the core concerns of the Nigerian Project. I will also take this opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of many gifted students who have moved from the classroom to become research associates, such as Amy Poteete, Alexandra Gillies and Scott Taylor and now Abhit Bhandari who is involved in all that I will discuss today.

Whenever you enter a body-scanning machine in an American airport, you are made to raise your hands in what has become a universal gesture of submission – thanks to the explosive device transported by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab that failed to ignite on Northwest Flight 253 on December 25, 2009. Each day brings reports of more gruesome acts of violence in Nigeria. Thousands are fleeing northern states as a result of the insurgency and police action back to their home areas in Nigeria or to their neighboring countries of origin. There is no immunity conferred by age, gender, ethnicity, religion or nationality. Salvaging the Nigerian Project is an imperative because, in one way or another, it now embraces us all.

Copyright © 2012 AfricaPlus

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